Despite calls to end pandemic shutdown, most leaders say wait

By John W. Coleman

Story updated April 18, 2020, with new information.

Pennsylvania reported 1,706 additional positive cases of the new coronavirus Friday, April 17, bringing the statewide total to 29,441. There were also 49 new deaths among positive cases, bringing the statewide coronavirus death toll to 756 as of Friday.

With nearly 30,000, Pennsylvania is now among the top five states in the country with the most coronavirus cases. The other four include New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Michigan, according to CNN’s current tally.

Yet, some state officials are pushing to cautiously reopen many businesses closed by Gov. Tom Wolf a month ago. The State Assembly passed legislation this week calling for the reopening, but the governor is expected to veto it. (PA Lawmakers Vote To Reopen Businesses, Veto Expected)

A public protest supporting that view is scheduled for Monday, April 20, in Harrisburg. (Harrisburg Protest: Thousands To Demonstrate Over PA Shutdowns) But there is still no clear timeline for when the state can begin to reopen its economy and discussions for a plan to do that are ongoing, officials have said.

“COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise in Pennsylvania, and even though the daily increases are not exponential, now is not the time to become complacent,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a news release with the latest numbers. “We must continue to stay home to protect ourselves, our families, our community. If you must go out, please make as few trips as possible and wear a mask to protect not only yourself, but other people as well. We need all Pennsylvanians to continue to heed these efforts to protect our vulnerable Pennsylvanians, our health care workers and frontline responders.”

Opinion polls show that a large majority of Americans oppose any reopening now, when there are reported risks of reversing the small drop in reported daily infections and deaths with increased social interaction. The amount of testing being done is still inadequate. So, many people may have the disease, without the typical symptoms, and not know it.  

Even with safety measures that will become mandatory in PA on this Sunday—like face coverings, physical distancing and temperature checks (PA Orders Coronavirus Safety Measures At Essential Businesses)—the risk in returning to more social interaction, even cautiously, is too dire in the view of many government and public health officials.

Eastern PA Conference leaders agree with waiting

Eastern PA Conference Bishop Peggy Johnson and her Cabinet share that view. “There are no plans to reopen our churches on a specific date,” she said in response to a query. “Wait until you hear from the governor, and follow the mandates of the government. Exercise abundant caution, be flexible, and continue the wonderful creative ways we are doing ministry right now.”

The conference has cleared its calendar of events until at least mid-August. So have many churches. But some events—just like worship services, Bible studies and meetings—are also being shifted online to webinars, video livestreaming productions and videoconference gatherings.

“I celebrate the adjustments people are making,” added the bishop. “I have been blown away.” 

The Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm, South District Superintendent, advised her pastors in a Zoom videoconference call to ”have plan A, B and C ready for summer programming, including online and hybrid models for worship and plans to hold virtual VBS (Vacation Bible School).” She and other superintendents expect that many churches will continue to “worship and engage in virtual ways even after some restrictions are lifted. 

“The health and welfare of our people and our communities must be at the forefront of our decisions,” said Taylor-Storm. “And any lifting of restrictions will require our churches to follow very strict protocols.  Many we serve are in the vulnerable population.  We are now living adaptive leadership!”